The drone of your dreams is flying your way
Check out these advanced features, capabilities and use cases to help support the value of a drone program for your agency
Whether you call them Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones, they are gaining additional superpowers every day. But before you buy one or more drones, you need to ensure your agency has the right licensing and resources to operate and maintain a police drone program.
While some agencies may have dismissed first- and second-generation UAVs as glorified toys, listed below are enough advanced features, capabilities and use cases to help support the value of a drone program to your command staff.
Drone programs in action
Fremont Police Department
Unlike a UAV that you can pick up at Amazon or Target and start flying, Fremont Police Department’s Lt. Matt Snelson explained that his agency has an extensive pilot training and permission-to-launch program. Each certified DJI Mavic pilot has a Mavic 2 Enterprise or Dual in their patrol vehicle trunk, but cannot deploy without command permission. If they need a bigger UAV, one of two DJI Matrices and its pilot can be deployed.
To apply to be a UAV pilot at Fremont PD, Lt. Snelson says that you first need to be a sworn officer in their department, and If you express an interest they will loan you a low-end drone to practice with.
Once you are ready, you need to take part in an exam for you and other potential pilots with senior pilots as judges. If you pass the entry exam, you are accepted into the rigorous training program – and have to pass further tests. Fremont PD has strict standards that are intended to be as transparent as possible to the public and they are very serious about only practiced law enforcement professionals flying for them.
Chula Vista Police Department
The Chula Vista Police Department in Southern California is a national leader in the use of drones in public safety and has a program called “Drone as First Responder” (DFR). DFR operations allow the immediate deployment of drones to 911 calls and other ongoing emergencies from four fixed sites in the 52 square mile city.
Each drone is controlled by a sworn teleoperator who is able to provide real-time intelligence to officers at the scene prior to their arrival. The technology also provides a live stream feed to officers in the field and command staff at the station.
This capability was enabled by CVPD’s participation in the FAA’s and DOT’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP). This program encouraged public agencies to partner with private sector drone companies to develop innovative Concepts of Operations (CONOPS) that would explore the integration of drones in the National Airspace System (NAS) as well as the public’s level of acceptance of drone use.
In addition to their work on DFR, Chula Vista worked closely with fellow IPP Team Member Redwood City-based Skydio. Based upon Skydio drones’ revolutionary obstacle avoidance technology, CVPD and Skydio developed a safety case that allowed pilots to fly out of their view, behind buildings, trees, or around corners during critical incidents.
The safety case resulted in CVPD being awarded the FAA’s first waiver for Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (TBVLOS). This waiver allows operators to fly the drone out of view, without the need of a visual observer during critical incidents. Since Chula Vista, nearly 200 other public safety agencies across the country have successfully applied for and received this waiver.
CVPD has flown over 5,618 DFR missions between October 2018 and April 2020, with 675 arrest assists. In 1,387 flights, the drone was able to manage the call without dispatching officers – a significant cost saving.
Live Situational Awareness
Most often, pictures and videos shown in the media depict a drone flying without restrictions above a neighborhood or natural landscape. However, the free-flying UAV is only one type of drone. Many organizations use lesser-known tethered solutions.
Tethered UAVs, such as the Elistair and Viper, offer infinite flight time that might be perfect for pre-planned events, giving you a 24x7 eye in the sky or blanketing an area with cellular or Wi-Fi coverage. Because of their height above the ground, a tethered drone could be nearly invisible and inaudible which may be important for some missions.
FLIR’s third-generation 3-foot diameter, 18-pound SkyRanger R70 is the law enforcement version of FLIR’s SkyRaider R80D sold to U.S. DoD and federal government users. Designed and built in Waterloo, Canada, 80% of the parts are sourced within 500km of the factory. It can fly for 40 minutes on its four internal batteries or for at least 24 hours when tethered, and in winds up to 40 mph sustained and 56 mph gusts.
By switching arms, propellors and payloads, the FLIR SkyRanger can be optimized for different missions such as high altitude, clandestine or long endurance. Dual navigation systems assist with accurate flight and station keeping, while advanced MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output) antennas increase range and help prevent jamming.
Besides traditional uses, this UAV is suitable for missions such as Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) or acting as a communications repeater. If an incident is detected by a tethered drone, a free-flying drone can be moved in for a closer look – some can accelerate from 0 to 50 mph in 5 seconds.
Chula Vista PD’s TVBLOS waiver came in handy recently when a CVPD drone could not locate an armed suspect from an altitude above the house. The alternatives were to send in a K9 or officers, but they could have walked directly into a firefight. Flying under the TBVLOS waiver, the drone pilot was able to maneuver the Skydio S2 below a patio cover where the pilot and suspect looked into each other’s eyes (so to speak). Knowing the jig was up, the suspect surrendered without incident.
During another mission searching for an armed suspect in backyards, a DFR could not see beneath trees, a pop-up tent and other objects in a backyard. The Skydio S2 navigated itself between power lines and trees to search the backyard and under the pop-up tent, all outside of visual line of sight of the pilot. Skydio’s advanced artificial intelligence and obstacle avoidance technology made it possible to pilot the drone out of sight with the confidence that it could avoid obstacles on its own.
Camera Quality/Sensor Payloads
A commercial UAV pilot is only as good as the equipment they use, and no amount of skill can overcome poor camera quality or an unstable drone. When evaluating a UAV’s camera, you also need to take overall platform stability into account. A high-resolution camera on an unstable platform cannot provide good image quality.
Another consideration is overall video coverage. Does the pilot need 360-degree video? What about a visual or infrared camera that can look upward rather than being blocked by the body of the drone?
While Hollywood can use post-production software such as ReelSteady to keep audiences from getting seasick when viewing a drone-shot video, law enforcement requires that the real-time stream be as steady as possible.
There are several ways that UAV video can be stabilized: Vibration isolation mounts, inertial- or gyro-stabilized gimbals and electronic image stabilization. The best bet always is to ask for demos in realistic situations such as high winds, rain or snow.
Some drones offer a choice of cameras with several supporting multiple cameras at the same time or allowing for a quick swap. Do your missions require high resolution, zoom or thermal cameras?
The modular payload system on the FLIR SkyRanger supports a handful of FLIR cameras, including the EOIR MKII, 20 megapixel HDZoom30, StormCaster L 4K ultra low light, StormCaster T zooming long-wave infrared and GIS-320 gas detection payloads – all of which can be swapped out in minutes.
The Chinese-built DJI Mavic 2 is available with a Hasselblad L1D-20c HDR camera with a 20 MP sensor or a 24-48 mm optical zoom camera with a 12 MP sensor. The Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced offers a 48 MP visual camera with 32x digital zoom and a 640 x 512 pixel thermal camera with HD transmission up to 10 km.
The Skydio S2 comes with a 4K60 HDR/12.3 MP camera. Used with the Skydio Enterprise App it provides up to 3x digital zoom. The Skydio X2 offers a 4K HDR color camera with 16x zoom along with a FLIR Boson 320 x 256 pixel LWIR thermal imager with 8x zoom that allows it to fly day or night.
You can use whatever camera came with your UAV, but it may be possible to either replace or mount an additional camera with features more to your liking. For example, some pilots have mounted a GoPro camera to their DJI Mavic drone. In addition to cameras for their own UAV, FLIR makes single- and multiple-sensor cameras (sensor payloads) that can be retrofitted onto some of the most popular drones, with video streamed back using FLIR’s software package.
Skydio’s UAVs, which sell from $999 to $20,000 depending on capabilities and options, have 45 megapixels of 360-degree visual sensing using six 4K fisheye cameras in a three up/three down configuration. In addition to using the camera output for navigation, an annual subscription software package allows the UAV to stitch the images together to display contiguous video to the pilot in real-time. Superzoom lets you use your fingers to zoom out for a 360° view of your surroundings or digitally zoom in (3x with the Skydio S2 and 16x with Skydio X2) for the ultimate situational awareness. And without moving the main camera, the fixed upward-pointing cameras display images from directly above the drone, allowing the pilot to focus on overhead targets or obstacles.
Automated evidence collection
A good pilot manually can fly a drone in a grid pattern or up and down the sides of a building to capture a crime scene or search for evidence. Using a drone to capture a crime scene inside a building could be nerve-wracking due to the possibility of running into a wall or furniture. Wouldn’t it be nice if a drone could do the work itself, preventing collision and ensure that no areas accidentally get skipped?
With 3D Scan, an add-on software package for S2 and X2, Skydio drones make it easy to scan and photograph complex structures. Using your controller’s touch screen, you drag your finger across the displayed area to define a polygon-shaped perimeter along with a top and bottom (height) to inspect. After choosing the resolution you require (the ground sampling distance, or GSD), AI-powered software does the rest.
The UAV will appear to stall for a moment while it is determining a plan of action. Then, as if by magic, it will start flying around the area to size up the structure then take the photos required to meet the objectives that you specified. The screen image changes color little by little as the UAV adaptively maps the structure to guarantee uniform, high-resolution coverage.
Because the UAV takes photos from above, below and the side, it could pick up hidden evidence overlooked by officers, such as items tossed onto a roof or hidden under an eave. Skydio UAVs have been used to autonomously map the inside and outside of post-blast bomb sites looking for clues.
FLIR offers a Payload and Application Development Kit that enables third parties or end-users to design their own payloads or build applications utilizing the computing power built into every SkyRanger. And most FLIR UAVs also are acceptable for purchase under the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
Skydio recently announced an integration and marketing partnership with Axon that will harmonize Skydio’s advanced drones and Autonomy Enterprise Foundation (AEF) software with Axon Air’s purpose-built public safety drone software. The roadmap for integration includes piloting, data ingestion, 3D mapping and program management. Drone footage eventually may also be synchronized with body-worn camera footage for post-incident analysis. In the coming months, Skydio drones seamlessly will be integrated into Axon’s Evidence.com ecosystem of connected devices. Once fully integrated, agencies will be able to concurrently live stream drone footage alongside Axon body-worn camera footage to command posts and mobile devices.
Axon’s drone strategist and subject matter expert for Axon Air, Vern Sallee, anticipates the Axon/Skydio partnership will provide for remote piloting of drones for DFR operations. The Skydio partnership also provides another platform for Axon Air customers who require an American-made drone, as mandated by the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
AI and Autonomous navigation
FLIR Vector real-time video processing software, integrated into the HDZoom 30 and EO/IR Mk-II Imaging payloads, automatically can target and track moving objects up to 3 miles away. The tracking algorithm adapts in real-time to changes in target shape and maintains a hold on the target even when its position changes or another object obstructs the view. With a display that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, Vector’s moving target indicator automatically annotates up to 10 moving objects within the camera’s field of view and can provide real-time calculation of target heading and speed in both visual and infrared.
Additional intelligence built into the FLIR SkyRanger infrastructure allows for the operation of multiple aircraft from a single ground control station, with each aircraft executing a unique, semi-autonomous flight plan.
Skydio was co-founded by Adam Bry, who has two decades of experience with small UAS, starting as a national champion R/C airplane pilot and as a member of the award-winning research program at MIT that pioneered autonomous flight for drones.
Skydio’s drones have a “secret sauce” of advanced software for autonomous flight written and supported by their USA-based staff. Skydio Autonomy is the result of a decade of R&D at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, computer vision and robotics. Both their S2 and X2 UAVs carry the Nvidia “Jetson” TX2 module – the fastest, most power-efficient embedded AI computing device available – which processes the data from six 4k navigational cameras for 360 obstacle avoidance.
Rather than simply reacting to an obstacle, Skydio Autonomy continuously builds a real-time 3D map of its surroundings at all times. The context-aware AI algorithms can figure out that if the drone sees a cable in mid-air, it must have start and end points – even if those cannot be seen.
With 360-degree obstacle avoidance, the UAV can safely return home even if it has lost connection with the pilot. Those six fisheye navigation cameras have no blind spots, enabling a Skydio drone to deftly bob and weave around obstacles on the way home – then recognize and land on its own transport case.
And while some drones are known to “freeze” in mid-air because there are obstacles all around them, Skydio’s motion prediction lets the drone independently plot intelligent paths around obstacles. The result is that you, the pilot, can just tell your drone where to go, while it figures out how to get there all by itself. The 360-degree vision and AI also allow Skydio UAVs to be flown inside and underground without the need for GPS or prop guards.
Fritz Reber, Skydio’s Head of Public Safety Integration, says that commonly used manual drones are difficult to fly and easy to crash. They require lengthy training and extra personnel during missions because of the high cognitive load they impose on the pilot. He says to think about the advances in UAVs like moving from a flip phone to a smartphone.
With the confidence of an AI engine that has every pilots’ back, you are able to fly closer to the assets you are inspecting, capturing angles no other drone allows you to, with greater resolution than much more expensive cameras are able to generate from farther stand-off distances.
2021 guide to drones in law enforcement (eBook)
It is hard to think of any technology that has seen such rapid and widespread integration into law enforcement operations as drones. The number of agencies using UAS has skyrocketed, as has the number of use cases for police drones. It is the diversity and affordability of this new technology that makes it so invaluable for police departments.
Longer battery life and automated UAV swap
The earliest UAVs could fly for around 10 minutes. Some larger drones, such as the DJI Matrice, have batteries that offer nearly an hour of flight time while the BRINC Drones LEMUR, designed and built in the USA, can fly for 31 minutes or can perch (sit in place) for up to 10 hours with active audio and video before returning home. Instead of a Lithium-polymer battery, which can burst into flame if struck or shot, the Lemur’s lithium-ion battery is more stable and enables the drone’s extended operational time.
FLIR’s Automatic In-Air Replacement (AIR) allows a fully charged, ready-to-launch SkyRanger to automatically fly to and take the place of another airborne SkyRanger when its battery is depleted, or if it needs to land. AIR also provides real-time payload swaps for when conditions or operational requirements change (daylight into night operations) where a SkyRanger flying a thermal camera replaces a SkyRanger flying a visible light camera for improved nighttime vision.
One manufacturer is working on a secure automated docking station that works similarly to a Roomba vacuum. When the UAV is low on battery it will warn the pilot then automatically return to its dock to charge.
The first generation of drones carried a camera and that was about it. Soon, agencies discovered that they could use Velcro or tape to allow drones to carry lightweight items such as a tourniquet, hostage phone, keys or a spare magazine and ammunition. Several aftermarket remote carry-and-drop attachments for UAVs now are available.
DJI’s Mavic 2 Enterprise Duo was one of the earliest drones to offer thermal imaging and interchangeable payloads including spotlights and a speaker. The current generation offers additional options including centimeter-accuracy positioning.
As higher load capacity drones started to come online, companies introduced strong, yet lightweight, components that allow a UAV to safely and discreetly deliver needed gear. Highnovate’s drone delivery solutions accurately can place climbing/rappelling hooks that weigh less than a pound but can support up to 2,800 pounds.
The FLIR Osprey package delivery payload is a simple, flexible and reliable way to attach and carry almost any object weighing up to 2 kg and drop it remotely using four downward-facing cameras to provide visibility to localize the drop site.
One of the more interesting custom payloads is part of the USA-built BRINC LEMUR UAV itself – a cellphone with its own number – which lets crisis negotiators talk to suspects or hostages.
BRINC was founded by teenager Blake Resnick after leaving the engineering program at Northwestern University at the age of 14. Having interned at DJI, McLaren and Tesla, he decided that he wanted to build an almost-indestructible self-righting drone.
The result is the LEMUR, designed from the ground up to aid tactical teams in barricade, hostage and active shooter situations through precision indoor flight – which uses another unique payload – a motorized breaching tool designed to smash tempered, automotive, and most residential glass – as seen in this video.
Instead of investing in autonomous flight capabilities, the nearly indestructible $8,999 LEMUR is designed for operators to fly into hard-to-navigate locations where GPS is only a dream. Unlike most other drones, the LEMUR can be flown into a building and scooted underneath a piece of furniture to watch and listen. Beefed-up radios allow the LEMUR to be controlled and to transmit audio and video even through thick concrete walls – such as a subway or sewer system.
Download this Police1 drones/unmanned aircraft systems buying guide
This Police1 guide provides information on what law enforcement agencies need to consider when determining how to integrate this technology into their equipment cache.
Cross-Drone and cross-agency collaboration
DroneSense, which is completely focused on public safety drone operations, offers a software as a service (SAAS) platform that gives mission controllers, incident commanders and subject matter experts a simultaneous view of video from multiple drones with secure access from the web.
A key component of DroneSense software is its database, which is used to track hardware and pilot hours including UAVs, batteries and other accessories. All info, including pilot hours but not the actual video, is logged and can be used for maintenance, billing and reimbursement. DroneSense can replay the entire flight which can be useful for citizen complaints and evidence presentation.
Through the use of custom software loaded onto the native controllers, DroneSense provides a common pilot experience across DJI, Autel Evo Series and Parrot Anafi and USA platforms. Future drone lines will be supported based on input from Public Safety clients.
Video is live-streamed with sub-second latency and mission controllers easily can move between multiple drone feeds and resize them on the fly. In addition to drone video, smart devices can be used as mobile streaming devices allowing the addition of “on the ground” video to the map in addition to the drone operator video.
During the mission, the IC can bring up maps and ESRI-compatible layers. When the drone spins up, the controller communicates with the software to put your drone on the map. The mission controller can set up a 6-digit mission code that allows other agencies to collaborate and fly a joint mission allowing multiple command staff from multiple agencies to get a single integrated picture.
The Texas Department of Public Safety awarded DroneSense a multi-year contract to provide the agency the tools “to improve situational awareness by centralizing and integrating massive data sets and creating the ideal environment for multiple agencies to collaborate and work together effectively to face any public safety crisis.”
Besides the drone or drones of your dreams, don’t forget to budget for maintenance, personnel and training. Skydio has studies that show that up to 80% of agencies’ UAV budgets could be taken up by training and staff. Some drones need both a pilot to navigate around obstacles along with a visual observer or mission specialist who is watching for suspects or evidence, while others with advanced obstacle avoidance offload the pilot so they also can act as the mission specialist.
Most UAVs have around a 30- to 45-minute flight time, which means that multiple batteries need to be kept on a charger for immediate replacement. How many batteries you need depends on your mission profiles, battery capacity, charging slots and charging speed.
Like Fremont PD, your agency might opt for multiple drones with differing capabilities at different price points. Smaller drones can be carried by pilots in patrol cars with larger, more capable drones staying back at base until needed. Or you might fly all your drones from one or more mission control centers like CVPD. Just like a firearm, the drone you have and can use is better than the one you don’t or can’t.
Some missions might require an obvious UAV presence while you might want a more covert drone for other applications. The BRINC LEMUR can hide under furniture for almost half a day and the Skydio X2 is nearly silent when more than 50 feet away due to an advanced 3-bladed propeller design.
Do you want a UAV controller with a built-in screen, or do you want to bring your own device (BYOD) such as an iPad, iPhone, Android phone or Microsoft tablet to attach to the controller? UAVs with BYOD controllers let you choose a screen size appropriate to the mission and if the screen breaks the swap out is much less expensive than replacing the entire controller. On the other hand, if you expect an officer to use a personal device, they will need to pair it with the drone – possibly every time they fly.
Ask manufacturers what training they recommend and who supplies it. Some UAVs just show up at your door and it is up to you to find your own training, while others, such as the LEMUR, cannot be purchased without a mandatory training package. Every $90,000 FLIR SkyRanger comes with 3 days of onsite training with a factory-certified trainer who tailors training to your department’s use cases and location.
DroneSense offers agencies a 30-day trial to get comfortable with the tools and provides online training videos and tutorials. Part of the initial setup is a simple process to load in drone platforms, batteries and controllers, plus pilots and their certifications.
Also, ask the manufacturer when they plan to discontinue or stop support for the UAV or accessories that you want to purchase. The DJI Matrice 600, Mavic 2 Enterprise, Mavic 2 Dual and Matrice 600 Pro will stop production and the Matrice 200 series and the Zenmuse XT thermal camera no longer will be serviced at the end of 2021.
Don’t be afraid to ask for extended demos, and if a drone is marketed as “anyone can fly it,” ask if it can be loaned to your agency for a month for extended evaluation.
After your UAV program is up and running successfully, then what? A future article will focus on required, nice to have and insanely cool accessories available for your “new hires.”